If the rules are suspended when travelling, they disappear when travelling during a foreign holiday. Although I knew the Swedes celebrated Midsummer primarily at their country homes, I didn’t anticipate their exodus from Stockholm. Without any residents, every store — from the Coop supermarket on Odenplan to the H&M on Drottninggatan — closes for the holiday. The remaining residents and visitors queue up at Skansen to celebrate in a simulated rural environment.
My mother and I didn’t join the others at Skansen and we didn’t join them at the only open restaurant on Birger Jarlsgatan. We slummed at Max Burger, Sweden’s answer fast food of choice since 1968, and, for 138 SEK (about $20), shared two sparkling waters in soda cans; a grilled chicken burger of dubious origin; a fish burger crusted in rice krispies; french fries that resembled potato stix; and a side salad with a single cherry tomato. Included in the price was also a table bolted to the floor, a solid plastic booth and a window with a scenic view over a grey, empty Stockholm. It wasn’t what either of us had in mind for midsummer dinner, but came to symbolise travel’s topsy-turvy nature for us.
Fast food in the 21st century exists on society’s fringes. Although McDonalds has traversed the globe, enter into any restaurant — as McDonald’s prefers to call them — and you enter an ‘other’ space. The rules as they exist outside the sliding door are suspended. From the smell and the music to the furniture and the lingo everything within the fast food outpost is a carefully crafted mirror of reality. If you glance quickly, Max Burger’s plastic chairs could pass for an IKEA-cheap take on Scandinavian style. They’re white with clean lines and none of McDonald’s misguided modern clown colours. If you ignore the pervasive fried aroma, the large windows could indicate a nicer-than-average dining experience. At a distance, Max Burger resembles a 60’s space age fantasy. The white is too shiny; the blue is metallic; and the orange similar to a rocket from a child’s drawing. The tall, slight domed ‘A’ in the logo looks like a rocket, suggesting that a meal at Max Burger will propel you into another universe. Order your meal at the computerised express counter and you transform into a denizen of the Max Burger galaxy. Order you meal at the counter and you enter the traditional fast food realm, complete with photos of your meal and a dizzying number of options.
Eating midsummer dinner at Max Burger was an alternate reality. For a few moments you imagine that you don’t have a ticket to Oslo the next morning. Like the other diners, you’re a Swede, enjoying a nostalgic meal on a special day. Max Burger’s insistence on their Swedish heritage ensures the generic details retain a thrilling exoticism. This isn’t just a fast food burger; it’s a Swedish fast food burger. It’s the burger advertisements declare ‘astonishingly utsökt’ — that is to say it’s Sweden’s tastiest burger. Max Burger’s all-Swedish radio station rattles off songs you’ve never heard of outside of Eurovision. The people around you aren’t chomping down on ridiculed fast food because they chose to, they’re enjoying an ironic meal made acceptable by Max Burger’s image as an alternative: it’s the Swedish answer to McDonalds and the response to the Swedish problem of midsummer dinner.
The numerous jokes my mother and I have made about Max Burger aren’t comments about the food, but about the ridiculous, uncomfortable and ‘other’ situations you encounter when travelling and travel’s ability to excuse judgement lapses. At home you have the knowledge and ability to pick a fast food alternative, when travelling it’s an acceptable first choice. After all, without a childhood spent at Max Burger, it’s unlikely you’ll believe you’re eating Sweden’s tastiest burger. Travel allows you to bypass these questions. Max Burger remains an exotic mistake and an opportunity to indulge in a tantalising what if: if you were born Swedish, Max Burger might be your midsummer tradition the way Chinese food is the American Jew’s supposed Christmas ritual.
Whether or not you encounter fish patties coated in rice krispies when travelling, being in a new space allows the ‘other’ to pass from overlooked to thrilling. Bolted down tables and plastic space age chairs are no longer strange reminders that you are in a time-free area where a kid’s play den coexists with 60’s nostalgia. Meanings as you know them cease to exist. Bad meals become cherished memories; mistakes become delightful adventures and a wasted day provides entertainment for weeks to come.